Jessica Church just finished a busy workday performing dental surgery. Now she balances with one leg on the back of a shiny black horse and the other extended straight up towards the rainy early evening sky with perfectly-pointed toes. Her hands hold grips on a harness on the back of the horse – called a surcingle – as the horse canters around a circular ring at a Port McNeill area farm.
Church, an energetic and chatty young woman, has a busy career as a dentist working both in Port McNeill and Chilliwack, yet she manages to devote significant amounts of time to her other passion of equestrian vaulting through her club, Fusion Vaulters.
While the idea of working long, involved days that often include surgeries followed by evenings coaching and teaching may seem like too much for some, it is the contrast between her two worlds that provides the versatile Church with balance in her life.
Vaulting, while not widely known outside of equestrian circles, is mesmerizing to watch. It is the performance of gymnastics and dance movements to music on a moving horse.
The horse is guided by a lunger, the name given to a person who gently directs the horse in a circle on the end of a line that is fixed to the bridle on the horse’s head.
The surcingle has grips on it that allow the vaulter more control over their movement. Before executing moves on horses, vaulters learn on a stationary barrel similarly shaped to a horse body.
Vaulters can compete as an individual, as a pair, called Pas de Deux, or as a team where six people constantly flow through a routine, with two or three people on the horse at a time.
Although she had ridden horses competitively for 16 years, Church became involved in vaulting when she was living in Victoria attending university and volunteering as an assistant coach with a therapeutic riding program.
Once she moved to Chilliwack to begin dental school, she started vaulting with a team. When they initially asked her to join, she was unsure if she was experienced enough, but joining was clearly the right move as the team ended up becoming provincial and national champions and even representing Canada internationally.
In 2012, Church began Fusion Vaulters, allowing her to coach and foster a love for vaulting among her young members. Members range in age and live on both the lower mainland and on Vancouver Island, and they travel to competitions in BC and beyond, including one in the US earlier this year.
On this rainy Thursday evening, Church practises on the barrels in the barn at the farm of one of her young fusion vaulters, Mia Lambert. Church sits on one barrel and the two go through many different moves they have done together, some involving Lambert being smoothly lifted high into the air above Church’s head.
In competition, vaulters perform a series of mandatory moves based on their level and then a unique freestyle routine to music they choose. Church loves the creativity this allows, clear from the breadth of moves her and Lambert display.
Church, Lambert and Lambert’s mother Heather Wade guide a horse named Fin from the barn out to a circular ring. As Wade takes the lunger position, Lambert is boosted up by Church.
Once she is atop Fin, he begins to walk and she puts two hands on the surcingle, draws her knees to the top of Fins’ back, and extends her right leg straight out behind her.
Church explains it is extremely important to treat the horses gently when performing moves, something aided by the soft and pliable shoes vaulters wear.
Church is then boosted up by Lambert, and as Fin continues to move she stands on his back, then balances upside down with her shoulder on his back and her body in the air before making an upside down splits look easy.
“I need to dispel the energy,” Church says back in the barn’s barrel room as she wipes down the white surcingle Fin was wearing. She says that she really enjoys dentistry, a job that can have her seeing more than 30 patients some days, ranging from check-ups to surgeries and requires her to be consistently aware, thorough and caring. “Your mind is just constantly working,” she says, explaining that going to stand on a horse while it is cantering is a great contrast from her days caring for patients, allowing her to engage a different part of her personality.
As Lambert and Wade leave the barn with their dogs, Church gets organized to wrap up the evening.
“When you love what you are doing, it does not feel like a job at all.”